As you know, if a performer we’ve featured in a previous GMC article passes on I usually put together a little tribute and also direct visitors to the previous article. (As I did recently for Marvin Rainwater.) But in a reversal of sorts, I started writing about today’s featured artist — Grammy-winning jazz pianist Marian McPartland — before I realized that she’d died just last month at age 95.
Born in England in the latter days of World War I, Margaret Marian Turner was a classically-trained prodigy who could play piano and violin at age three. (In her later years, she said that she was a synesthete — someone who can ‘see’ colors in music.) But even though she continued her musical studies while growing up, she became more and more fascinated by American jazz. Approaching adulthood as World War II was getting underway, she made a break with her family and joined a touring vaudeville act, performing as Marian Page. It would be a significant turning point in her life, as she not only gained a lot of musical experience but also met her future husband, American cornetist Jimmy McPartland, while touring in USO shows.
After the war the couple moved to Jimmy’s home city of Chicago but later relocated to New York, where both would pursue their careers for many years. They played together at times but Jimmy was mostly into dixieland and Marian preferred conventional jazz, and she wasted no time forming a group that included her friend, drummer Joe Morello (who would later be part of the iconic Dave Brubeck Quartet). That combo and others she later formed became popular fixtures in the Manhattan jazz world, with long-standing gigs at clubs like the Embers and the Hickory House.
But Marian didn’t forget to hit the recording studio with regularity, occasionally teaming up with Jimmy but more often playing alongside stars like Dizzy Gillespie. In addition, she was a respected composer and for many years the hostess of a national jazz radio show on NPR. She picked up many honors through the years, and when she died she left behind a legacy as a treasured part of jazz history.